Soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, as the heat from the Cold War was abating, the U.S.-led West was warming up to take on another enemy — militant “Islamism.” Incidentally, the dramatis personae of this new anti-western camp emerged from South Asia in the aftermath of the violent occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, its subsequent defeat and withdrawal in 1989.Olivier Roy writes in Globalised Islam that the West did not initially take notice of the “neofundamentalist” movements because they were seen by the United States and its Pakistani and Saudi allies as “a great strategic tool for fighting communism, radical Shiism and even Arab leftist nationalism (from PLO to Baathism).”
The trend suddenly reversed when within a few days of Saddam invading Kuwait in August, 1990 the U.S. landed its troops in Saudi Arabia as part of a “wholly defensive” mission to protect that country from Iraq. This went on to become Bin Laden’s stated reason to mount terrorist strikes against the U.S. and its citizens including the horrific 9/11 attack. As is obvious religion had no role in the aforementioned happenings until Osama decided to invoke Jihad in his so called fatwa of 1996 “to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two Holy places” thereby ensuring Islam became part of the discourse on terror, and Muslims the victims of Islamophobia. This is roughly the setting of A.G. Noorani’s excellent book, Islam, South Asia and the Cold War. It is actually a collection of Noorani’s articles and book reviews that appeared in various publications across India and Pakistan over the last 25 years. As one of the foremost political analysts of our times, Noorani has used his expertise to the fullest in the selection and arrangement of his essays in three exciting sections namely Islam and Muslims, South Asian Themes and Ravages of the Cold War.
The first section contains 14 articles on Islam on topics ranging from the Quran, the Prophet, Danish cartoons, and Sufi saints such as Sarmad, Mansur al-Hallaj and Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. There is also an interesting review of Peter J. Awn’s Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology. But the two most absorbing articles in this section are “A Liberal Islam in South Asia” and “The Islamic State: A Mirage.”
Perversion of Islam
In the first one Noorani expresses anguish over the perversion of Islam “by men in authority” and how liberal thinking among Indian Muslims has been under attack since the time when Jinnah thought that his Muslim League had freed them “from that undesirable element” of the clergy. As evidence Noorani refers to several cases including those of the great philosopher-poet Iqbal and Maulana Azad. While Iqbal was forced to give up his proposed work on the concept of ijtihad (independent reasoning) by some maulvis, Azad had to suppress the third volume of his Quranic exegesis (Tarjuman al-Quran) fearing a clerical backlash. For the same reasons Rafiq Zakaria’s request to translate into English Sir Syed’s commentary on the Quran was turned down by the Aligarh Muslim University and the Sir Syed Academy.
Noorani quotes from Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam to show how the scholarly poet had justified the claim of the Muslim liberals to re-interpret the foundational legal principles of Islam in accordance with the altered conditions of modern life. But unfortunately this could not happen because the theologians lacked “the courage and the desire to think afresh.” Indeed the last school of liberal theologians who founded their research on reason and logic were the Mutazilites. They flourished in Iraq more than a millennium ago between the 8th and 9th centuries, and since their systematic decimation during the period of Mutawakkil, the Abbasid ruler, the gates of ijtihad have remained closed.
Noorani claims that any reform in the Muslim world is possible only when following four issues are tackled honestly; a) Interpreting Quran “in the light of the times” b) Weeding out inauthentic Hadith c) Rejection of the authority of the clergy and d) A sound appreciation of Islam in history.
In “The Islamic State: A Mirage”, Noorani comes down heavily on the idea of an Islamic theocracy which he says is incapable of realisation for the entire Muslim ummah. He quotes in extenso Mustafa Kemal’s reasons for abolishing the Caliphate in 1924. Kemal had argued that the notion of a single Caliph exercising authority over the entire Muslim world “is one which has come out of books, not reality”, because Caliphates in history were never universal. For instance, the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad and the Umayyads of Cordova were not just independent of and antagonistic to each other but not recognised by the Persians, Afghans and African Muslims. Therefore, Kemal wanted to know why “those who advocate a universal Caliph have so far refused to make any contribution. What, then, do they expect? That the Turks alone should carry the burden of this institution …?”
Another article worth reading is Muhammad and Europe, which is a review of Minou Reeves’ Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making. Here Noorani defends the honour of the Prophet using Reeves’ excellent research which shows how European rulers and polemicists denigrated the Prophet because the former felt threatened by the Muslim rule and the latter by the simplicity and clarity of the Islamic theology and the too many awkward questions it raised about Christian dogma.
The second section contains interesting articles on Urdu, Urdu poetry, Nehru, Henry Kissinger and India’s bomb, a critical review of L.K.Advani’s My Country, My Life, and a discerning write-up titled “India’s Talkative Generals” which deals with the issue of officers of the armed forces pronouncing freely on matters beyond their legitimate domain. In the third section of the book (Ravages of the Cold War), apart from discussing the sinful birth of Israel, the US-Iran imbroglio and the demise of U.S. diplomacy, Noorani exposes the flaws of the U.S. foreign policy and its failures.
In the review article, “The Rise of America’s Neocons” he refers to a policy paper written by Zalmay Khalilzad for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz, which envisioned a future in which “the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S.” The paper echoed some of the ideas of Wolfowitz that, “in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil.”
In a pithy response, Noorani advises the militarists in the U.S. to pay heed to Will Durant’s arresting lines on Sparta in The Age of Greece which describe how militarism had absorbed Sparta and made the “once so honoured” Laconian state, “the hated tenor of her neighbours”; and when she fell, “all nations marveled, but none mourned.” In short, the book offers an excitingly perceptive analysis of how the political destiny of the world revolves round the liberal interpretation of Islam, US foreign policy and stability in South Asia.